Home of the cheesesteak, the beef piled sky high
Photo by pwbaker
Rap is about place, pure and simple. More than any other musical genre I can think of--more than blues, more than jazz, more than country--it absorbs and documents the world around it. You can find that geography in sound, from the manic loopiness of Yay Area hyphy to the languid drawl of Houston's Chopped and Screwed to the hybrid house-thump of Baltimore's club scene. Even more likely though, you'll hear rappers flaunting their hometowns in their lyrics like they were sitting members of the Chamber of Commerce. It's not just a point of pride however; because rap is so often rooted in autobiographical nostalgia, the cities aren't just settings for stories but become full-on characters themselves.
Think how impossible it would be to disassociate Nas from "coming outta Queensbridge," the Roots and their Illadelph half-lives, or Lil Wayne and his "lost city of New Or-leans." Kanye West even literally personalizes his city's streets on "Homecoming," rapping: "I met this girl when I was three years old/ And what I love most, she had so much soul/ She said, 'Excuse me little homie, I know you don't know me,/ But my name is Windy, and I like to blow trees.'/ And from that point, I never blow her off." But more often, you discover the smells, sounds and sights in the sharp details rappers convey, such as Talib Kweli's iconic offering on Black Star's "Definition": "Brooklyn, New York City, where they paint murals of Biggie/ In cash we trust 'cause it's ghetto-fabulous, life look pretty/ What a pity, blunts is still fifty cents, it's intense/ Tree scents is dominant, can't be covered with incense."
"Philly Codes," off of Nico the Beast's new solo album, No Beast So Fierce, is another potent example of civic boasting at its best. In keeping with the brotherly love theme, Clean Guns' Nico gets assists from fellow residents 2ew Gunn Ciz and Zilla Rocca, to rep his South Philly stomping grounds. 2ew Gunn Ciz wastes no time on his guest spot, laying out his intentions with this really smart pronoucement: "If it ain't the P on the fitted, you get it in the flow/ I paint my city's pictures like I'm Vincent Van Gogh/ So I don't make albums, I create a art show." Zilla also rocks his time on the mic, delivering one of his very best efforts to date. It's hard to isolate just a few good lines, but his observation, "City sleepin', row homes, phone lines squeezin',/ After twelve, you'll find a parking spot the same time you find Jesus" is especially precise and terrific.
Lines like that also help reveal just why hometown hip-hop is so often so well-done. Because rap can veer too abstract, vague or general, speaking about specific streets and specific eras forces rappers to get particular. It enables them to tell vivid, memorable stories using all the information they intimately know. Consider this part of Nico's verse, where the toughness he generally brags about in the chorus gets a closer look: "Men will respect you here/ Eventual death is here/ Sent to the resting plot, what you expect to hear?/ The mayor is crooked too/ And he does a look at you, like, 'Where the fuck you from?'/ Maybe they'll take your jewels." With just that brief section, he provides a pretty deep characterization of Philly--everyone, it seems, from the underclass to the top officials, has to hustle to get by here.
That weird complexity is another reason that hometown hip-hop is worth hearing. In one breath, a rapper indicts his city for its shortcomings and failings, while in the very next, pledges his proud allegiance. But it also rings true, capturing the uneasy process of coming-of-age and staying alive in some of America's roughest urban centers. When Nico observes, "Heart of the city: strong,/ Dark and it's shitty, y'all/ The projects here are pretty raw./ The jungle is hot and waiting/ And tenants are not complacent/ Our menace an occupation/ Awaiting the population," he's evoking all the tough experiences that have brought him this far. You can hear the weight of knowledge but also the profound admiration in every line he spits. That South Philly has shaped so much of his character is clear, but the fact that he, along with Zilla Rocca and 2ew Gunn Ciz, imbues Philly with so much character is the real tribute.
* MP3: "Philly Codes" - Nico the Beast ft. Zilla Rocca and 2ew Gunn Ciz from No Beast So Fierce [Buy it]
* MySpace: Nico the Beast
* Previously: 2-1-5, prepare for glory
* Previously: Regarded as great: Clean Guns MP3s
* Previously: Good, clean fun: Clean Guns MP3s